Jen and her mum always had what Jen describes as a “rocky relationship”, but after her mum met a new partner when Jen was 13, the relationship gradually broke down until the situation became untenable, and Jen had to leave at just 16.
With nowhere to go, Jen spent two weeks sofa-surfing with friends, but it was not a long-term solution: “It’s like you’re a burden – you just feel like you’re in the way,” she admits. “Everyone says it’s fine and they want to help, but it’s embarrassing.”
Sometimes, when all other options had been exhausted, Jen would wander the streets until it was time for school.
“It was November/December time, so it was really cold. I only had my school uniform and a set of clothes in my bag. After I finished school, I used to walk up to one of the big supermarkets and get changed in the toilets,” she recalls. “I’d hang about in McDonalds until they kicked me out and then I’d try and find somewhere else warm. Often, I’d just have to walk around and sit in doorways until the morning. I’d then get showered in school and carry on like that.”
When Jen casts her mind back to that time, she remembers how vulnerable she was: “It was terrifying. Anything could have happened. My neighbourhood isn’t that safe at the best of times. It was just so cold too; I didn’t even have socks. I’ve got big scars on my ankles from where I was just walking about all the time.”
But no matter how bad things got during those two weeks, Jen still felt unable to share what she was going through with anyone. “I’d go into school and just pretend that everything was fine. I’d listen to everyone else speak about their families and parents, it was really hard,” she remembers.
Luckily, Jen’s mum had a contact at Centrepoint in Bradford and they urged her to present as homeless at the Town Hall in order to get a referral. Jen was initially placed in a shared house, then in a supported maisonette managed by Centrepoint.
However, concerns were raised around her ability to manage her own self-care. There were rumours that she was being exploited by the older males who would encourage her to throw parties in her flat and offer her drugs and alcohol.
“There was all sorts of stuff that I was still dealing with, so I was just partying. I was taking a load of drugs and drinking,” she reflects.
Furthermore, Jen was having difficulty managing her finances, relying on food bank handouts and struggling to pay for her heating. It was agreed that Jen should be referred to one of Centrepoint’s therapeutic services where she would receive a higher level of support.
Jen initially found it difficult to adapt to this new routine and the extra restrictions on her behaviour.
“When I first got here, I was convinced that I didn’t want to be here, that I could live on my own,” she says. “I would run away and go missing – I was doing everything I could to move out. But they never gave up. They sorted out my college for me and gave me a drug counsellor from [Bradford-based drug treatment charity] The Bridge Project, who has really helped me to get clean.”
“I was also involved in an abusive, horrible relationship not so long ago which I’ve just got out of, and they supported me through all of that. They’re just brilliant,” she adds.
For Jen, the relationship with her keyworker, Patrick, has been vital to her recovery: “I’ve got a pattern of behaviour where if things are going wrong in my life, my bedroom will be a mess and I’ll stop cooking and cleaning. He picks up on that as a sign of me withdrawing. He’ll come and ask me what’s going on and try to pick me up. He’s really good like that,” she says. “He can stop me spiralling.”
“All the staff here are amazing. They have an open door policy and you can go and talk to them whenever you need to.”
Over the year, Jen re-engaged with her school and was able to sit some of her GCSEs and she is now about to embark on a business course at college. Jen has also been supported by Patrick in learning to budget effectively on a weekly basis and has now completed all her drug and alcohol sessions with the The Bridge Project, managing to give up class A drugs entirely.
But Jen’s journey isn’t over yet. Patrick is still working with her to safe with older males and building positive relationships, something she is now aware of as an issue and can reflect on.
“No matter how hard staff try to help change the direction of a young person’s life, it’s the young person that needs to accept there is an issue to be changed,” Patrick says. “Staff need to ensure that the young person knows that no matter how long it takes for them to be able to change their life around, staff will be here to support them.”
Jen is starting to feel optimistic about the future: she is looking forward to getting her own place in 2020 when she turns 18.
*names have been changed.
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